Analyzing GA Security

Just a few hours before this scheduled telephone interview, a private pilot upset with the Internal Revenue Service flew his single-engine Piper into IRS offices in northwest Austin, TX. The incident served to reinforce the fear that some have regarding the potential for a terrorist attack using a private airplane. Industry doesn’t quite see it that way, and had its voice heard in 2009 when the Transportation Security Administration withdrew its proposed Large Aircraft Security Program, which it is currently rethinking with industry’s participation. GA security, thus, remains a hot topic, and Lindsey C. McFarren, president of McFarren Aviation Consulting, LLC, has been at the center of the issue for several years.

McFarren worked in operations with Flight Options and earned her Masters of Aeronautical Science degree at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. A former flight school owner, she later joined the National Air Transportation Association as manager of regulatory affairs, where she focused heavily on Part 135 regulations and, among other issues, security.

Following is an edited transcript of the interview ...

AIRPORT BUSINESS: In 2007, you left NATA to join TSA. Why?

McFarren: We had heard about the Large Aircraft Security Program [LASP], which didn’t have a name at the time. We all knew something was going on and that it was going to affect a large portion of the general population. I thought I could make a difference. I thought I could take some experience from when I was at the fractional operator; we implemented a 12/5 program while I was there. That combined with my experience at NATA, where I got to know smaller operators. I wanted to take that to TSA and see what kind of reasonable measures we could come up with.

AB: How would you characterize your experience at TSA?

McFarren: It was very educational; I got a new perspective. It’s not a perspective that I always agreed with, necessarily. It definitely taught me to see both sides; I’ll admit I went in with one picture in mind. I learned the other side of the story; those guys are fighting a tough battle in some respects. When something like the Austin incident happens, they really have to jump and move quickly, and sometimes that doesn’t work for the industry.

They’re a young agency, even now. They’ve got a lot of experience to get behind them. Things like rulemaking; they had been through very few rulemaking processes from the beginning. Coming into the Large Aircraft Security Program proposed rule was a whole new process for a lot of them.

AB: What are you doing currently related to the LASP?

McFarren: Frankly I’m staying as far away as possible; I’m still bound by ethics rules not to be directly involved.

AB: It would seem that TSA listened to the industry on the LASP.

McFarren: I was still at TSA when comments were coming in. The industry was pretty responsible on this; it isn’t just what people do for a living, it’s also a passion. The industry was level-headed enough and brought real enough arguments to the table that TSA was able to listen. There are people there who want to get it right and want to listen to the industry.

If the industry had been irrational or jumping the gun without decent numbers to back up their argument, then you lose all credibility with the agency.
For every one spouting off, there were hundreds providing meaningful impact.

AB: One of the arguments that industry makes is that “everybody knows everybody” at a general aviation airport — that is, the threat is minimal. Yet, it appears that the Austin incident was just that — a pilot who everybody knew and nobody suspected. Thus, the thinking goes, another pilot in a similar situation could have been toting a bomb. Your thoughts?

McFarren: The majority of the time the argument that everybody knows everybody and we question people we don’t know is a good one. Most of the time I would say it works. There is always a nut-case out there, a one-off scenario; there’s always going to be some level of risk that we can’t mitigate. Or if we did it would be totally irrational.

We have to decide what that level is; to some extent, we decided with the 12/5 program that we think airplanes over a certain size and for a certain purpose maybe pose a higher risk.
We have to decide, is the level of risk from a Piper Cherokee an acceptable level of risk? You can’t mitigate all risk without grounding all of us.

AB: The mood of Congress today is to investigate everything. And, indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the Austin trajedy at least one U.S. Congressman was calling for just that. Do we need Congressional hearings on this?

McFarren: I think TSA and other alphabet agencies involved with TSA have already done a fair amount of investigating and they allude to this in the preamble to the proposed rule for the LASP. I think the people that make the decisions have some idea of what sort of damage can be caused by different size aircraft and different fuel loads — things of that nature.

Again, it all comes down to what is the acceptable level of risk?

TSA has a difficult task at times, because this is the sort of thing that will have them scrambling and there’s almost no good answer. If they come up with something too quickly, it was a kneejerk reaction and the industry can’t do it. If they don’t come up with something, then Congress is continuously tapping them on the shoulder.

You cannot mitigate out a one-off like this. It didn’t have to be an airplane; it could have been a Ryder rental truck and in fact probably would have done more damage.